Thursday, February 10, 2011

Is archaeology a social science?

I've been skimming through the "World Social Science Report" from 2010, and reflecting on the extent to which archaeology is, or should be, part of the wider social sciences. Here I just have time for a few quick observations.
  • The National Science Foundation classifies archaeology as a social science in some ways. The Archaeology program is part of the Directorate of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, but it is NOT part of the Division of Social and Economic Sciences with the other major social sciences. Instead, we are part of the Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, which includes psychology, geography, and "Anthropological Sciences," which in turn includes archaeology
  • The Thomson-Reuters journal classification system classifies archaeology as part of the humanities. This affects searching, journal comparisons, etc.
  • The World Social Science Report barely discusses archaeology. It is mentioned a number of times, generally when giving a list of subdisciplines of anthropology, although it is listed as a discipline of its own a couple of times. But my brief skim suggests that archaeology is not taken into account very seriously in the syntheses or recommendations of that document.
  • The position of archaeology as a "subdiscipline" of anthropology may contribute to its isolation from other social sciences, a universe in which (cultural) anthropology is often seen as an isolated outlier. For example a recent book presenting a unified methodological approach for the social sciences (Gerring 2011) pretty much dismisses anthropology as too interpretivist, too humanities-oriented to be included with sociology, political science, economics, and other social sciences. The science flap at the AAA does not help here.
  • The predominance of high-level social-philosophical theorizing in much of archaeology today also keeps archaeology isolated from other social sciences, where such theory is in the minority. For my take on this issue of theory, see Smith (2011). If archaeologists want to ally themselves with the humanities, then agency, identity, negotiation, post-structuralism and the like are fine, but for a more more grounded social-scientific approach to archaeology, a different kind of theory is needed (I have found Mjøset 2001 and 2009 are very helpful in sorting out the theoretical terrain in both archaeology and the broader social sciences).
  • I think many anthropological archaeologists see archaeology as part of a more scientific discipline of anthropology, and as such archaeology (and anthropology), are social sciences for this reason. I am less sanguine about the broader scientific status of anthropology (either "four-field anthropology" or cultural anthropology), and I'd rather see archaeology try to be its own social science without the baggage of anthropology. (Of course this is completely unrealistic given current university disciplinary organization and politics). I am making an intellectual argument, not a structural argument here.
NEVERTHELESS, hope spring eternal, as they say. Perhaps some of us can convince other social scientists that archaeology has something to contribute to understanding human society since the Urban Revolution, including contemporary society. (Prior to the Urban Revolution, the other social sciences are clueless, so it seems quite obvious that archaeology has a major role to play there).

Gerring, John
2011    Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Mjøset, Lars
2001    Theory: Conceptions in the Social Sciences. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, pp. 15641-15647. Elsevier, New York.

2009    The Contextualist Approach to Social Science Methodology. In The Sage Handbook of Case-Based Methods, edited by David Byrne and Charles C. Ragin, pp. 39-68. Sage, London.

Smith, Michael E. 2011    Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18:(in press).

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

"I'd rather see archaeology try to be its own social science without the baggage of anthropology."

I hope you never ever get your way on this. I am a trained anthropologist who does archaeology. Anthropology first, archaeology second. In fact, in Europe, many archaeologists also do not see themselves as part of anthropology but as part of history. Many of these folks seem to be promoters of the theory you dislike. I too am critical of vacuous theory. But not anthropology. It is funny how archaeologists sometimes accuse other archaeologists of being theory-mongers for talking about issues that have been at the heart of anthropology for a century (cf. part of Costin's review in a recent AP3A). If I had to choose between anthropology and archaeology, I would choose anthropology. Every time. How can archaeology becoming a separate discipline prevent isolation and enhance its relevance. Simple. It cannot. If one is an anthropologist one is not only holistic in terms of perspective but is holistic in terms of methods. If there are cultural anthropologists who disagree, maybe archaeologists should do a better job of engaging cultural anthropologists' interests in contemporary issues rather than fleeing in reactionary rage.

Marcus said...

I agree on your main points, but this caught my eye:

"The predominance of high-level social-philosophical theorizing in much of archaeology today also keeps archaeology isolated from other social sciences, where such theory is in the minority."

There is in fact very little credible HLT theorizing in archaeology that can stand up to rigorous philosophical analysis. Very little!

Michael E. Smith said...

@Anonymous - "Reactionary rage"? Hmmmmmm. If one imagines an ideal 4-field anthropology, then I would be happy to be part of such a discipline. But when I look at anthropology today, I see subdisciplines that typically don't talk to one another. I see much of cultural anthropology wrapped up in postmodern nonsense, along with a strong sense of disdain for archaeology. I see an organization (the AAA) more interested in politics than scholarship. I find much more intellectual common ground with urban history, urban geography, and other fields than I do with cultural anthropology today.

Like many anthropological archaeologists, you frame the choice as between anthropological archaeology and a non-social sterile and isolated archaeology. I favor a different choice: intellectual context and depth from other social science disciplines. My views are based on my own experiences, and I'm not sure they work for other kinds of archaeological research.

You suggest that: "archaeologists should do a better job of engaging cultural anthropologists' interests in contemporary issues." I have made quite an effort to do exactly this over the last 2 years. I have done things like:

- tried to publish on ancient-modern urban comparisons in Current Anthropology (they rejected the paper that ended up in CAJ-2010; it was clear that the cultural anthro reviewers had no idea what I was talking about and no interest in exploring these issues).

- participated in cultural anthropology blogs and listservs.

- tried unsuccessfully to start a discussion of how archaeology relates to cultural anthropology on the AAA blog.

- communicated with individual urban anthropologists by email to try to set up a dialogue.

I don't feel any rage about cultural anthropology, or the discipline or the AAA. What I feel is a deep disappointment, coupled with an intellectual excitement that comes from other social science fields but not from anthropology. I'm not sure how this could be considered "reactionary," though.

Frost Queen said...

At my school where I teach anthropology is not even in the Social Science Department! We are all in the Earth Sciences and Anthropology Department. Things to come?
Its not a bad thing it is sort of freeing as a matter of fact.

Michael E. Smith said...

Earth Sciences is attractive for a number of reasons, not least of which is that there will be less postmodern nonsense or hand-wringing about whether we do science or not.